If you have read my blog over the last couple of years, you know I have been thinking a lot about whether or not we can truly know ourselves. At the core of this inquiry is whether or not we can ever disentangle ourselves from all of the cultural, familial, and other influences that pour themselves into us on a daily basis. These factors wrap themselves around us, creating a ball of entangled ideas and memories that form our very being, and untangling them, to dive into our selves and explore the essence of our very being, becomes a monumental undertaking.
Lillian Smith details the effort it takes to unravel ourselves from the myriad of strings that constrict us, specifically the threads that cause us to hate and fear others. At the beginning of “Three Ghost Stories,” in Killers of the Dream, she writes about the Southern strictures the encircle white southerners and the process of disentangling oneself from them, “The raveling out of what had been woven so tightly was usually a slow process. One thread at a time came loose. Then another. Sometimes a great hole was torn by a quick stabbing experience. However it happened, it was not long in the little southerner’s life before the lessons taught him as a Christian, a white man, an American, a puritan, began to contradict each other.”
These threads that taught the white child to love Jesus but to look at his Black neighbor as inferior, stifled the heart from growing, pressured the heart into submission, causing it to decay and wither, leaving little trace of the humanity that originated within it. Yet, when one starts to unravel the contradictions, pulling at the threads that suffocate the heart, humanity begins to return, breathing life back into the withering heart.
Those suffocating threads, though, never truly leave the conscience. They linger, rattling around, waiting to re-implant themselves in the heart, affecting the entire organism. They move around, morph, and change, always butting up against and influencing the true self that resides within each of us. Smith, in The Journey, talks about our brokenness and how these thread of brokenness hinder us from ever becoming truly whole. She writes, “[We] can never be whole though [our] integrity has come out of [our] reaching for wholeness.” No matter how hard we strive, the things that have shaped us–positive, negative, or neutral–form us and deny us the ability to ever return to our “whole” self. We remain, in many ways, broken, specifically from the harm that the negative influences have upon us.
Now, can we ever, amidst all of our brokenness, get back to our “whole” self? Talking with a friend about race relations and the spirituals, Smith’s friend tells her, “This sloughing off, layer after layer, until you find something real at the core is a terrible job.” The unravelling, the digging, the excavating, is not an easy task, especially when the threads wrap tight and the roots run deep and the poison seeps deep into the soul. It’s difficult. It’s painful. But, it’s what we must do to recover our humanity. It’s what we must do to move forward, creating a better world for all.
When I think about all of this, I keep coming back to language and no matter how hard we try to extricate ourselves from the connotations that words arouse within us after all the years we have imbibed them we still fall prey to the poison that lurks within these connotations. For example, I always think about our connotations with “black” and “white.” We connote darkness, sin, hate, fear, and other negative feelings and attributes with “black” while we connote purity, beauty, goodness, cleanliness, and other positive feelings and attributes with “white.” Brother Ali raps in “Before They Called You White,” about the ways that these connotations affect us: “With symbolic image in the scripture that you’re reading White holy angels and black evil demons.” Even when I know the psychological damage and physical stigmas that such connotations carry with them, I revert back to them, again and again. One need only look at songs like Propaganda’s “Darkie” or novels such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for examples.
In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong writes, “The elements out of which a term is originally built usually, and probably always, linger somehow in subsequent meanings, perhaps obscurely but often powerfully and often irreducibly.” Ong points out, as Smith does, that even when we know the language we use, the images we consume, the thoughts we have are harmful, the residue of those lessons remain trapped within us, and we must suppress them with every ounce of our being. This is part of the difficult work. The constant reflecting upon ourselves, our words, our thoughts, and our actions. This is what scares us, this looking into the mirror to see ourselves, the image formed throughout our lives, staring back at us. It scares us to come face to face with our hates, fears, and prejudices. It scares us to recognize the ways that we contribute to the oppression of others and cause harm to ourselves in the process.
To peel back those layers, to work to get to our whole selves, we must first face ourselves, dirt and all. We must come into contact with the recesses of our minds and extricate the roots that have dug into our skulls. We must unravel the threads that ensnare our hearts, poking holes in them, extricating our hearts from their grip. When we do this hard work of self-examination and action, only then can we ever really begin to approach our true selves. Only then can we, as Smith says, begin to see the individuals, including ourselves, behind the masks. While I do not think we can ever reach back to that whole self, we must strive to do just that. We must strive to rid ourselves of the inextricable weight that bears down upon all of us, crushing us. The weight that blinds us to our shared humanity. We must humble ourselves. When we do the work, we will move forward. Until then, we will continue to rot away under stagnant waters, causing our humanity to decay beneath the surface.